Hillsborough County’s School Board approved a plan to transform a stadium at Howard W. Blake High School into the home of a new professional women’s soccer team that will play in Tampa starting next year.
The board voted 6 to 1 to allow the yet-to-be named team to play its first few seasons at the school near downtown. In exchange, the team committed to major upgrades including expanding capacity from 1,800 to about 5,000.
The team will assume all costs for the upgrades. It will also leave them in place when it moves to a permanent home at some point.
District Deputy Superintendent of Operations Chris Farkas told board members that the team will spend about $4 million on those upgrades.
The improvements will include upgrading the locker rooms, restrooms and the front of the school, as well as installing new FIFA-approved turf, building a stage for performances and other improvements “that will be identified as plans are completed.” The team also plans to work with school leaders to “identify beautification projects on the adjacent Blake campus.”
Vice Chairman Henry Washington says he’s been to the school to speak with officials and that there is a sense of excitement.
A couple board members, however, questioned the agreement and were sharply critical of the structure of the contract saying the district would not get a piece of a financial windfall that will come from sponsorships, concessions and parking as well as deals that could be struck with local restaurants and amenities.
“We’re looking at shinny penny,” said board Chair Nadia Combs, adding a moment later, “We’re going to give this away for a field and some lockers”
She suggested the board table the item until more details were agreed on. Her motion failed.
Stacy Hahn, who represents District 2, defended the agreement, saying opponents were being short-sighted and that the improvements would be beneficial to both the school and the students.
“I am taken aback how this isn’t seen as an opportunity,” she said, adding that “it’s unfortunate we’re having this conversation.”
Farkas told members the school board has approved similar deals, often with fewer benefits, in the past.
Washington expressed anger that despite the support of the community, alumni and school officials, members from other districts were balking at the agreement and the improvements that would help Blake.
“The community is feeling let down in West Tampa. … I’m really pissed,” he said. “How many of you all have talked to the principal?”
His statement seemed to turn the tone of the conversation around, leaving Combs as the sole opponent. And even then, she argued that the proposal wasn’t the problem, rather a lack of specificity in the contract.
The U.S.-based league will initially feature 10 to 12 teams based in cities including Dallas, Charlotte and Washington D.C. in addition to Tampa. Five other cities have will have teams that will start playing in 2025.
According to Tampa-based USL’s website, the league “has committed to U.S. Soccer’s Division One standards, reflecting its collective vision to be a global leader in women’s soccer on and off the field while providing more opportunities for more women in more communities.”
The team will follow a traditional fall-to-summer calendar that allows players to meet their international responsibilities, including playing for their home countries in the Olympics and World Cup.
Team coaches and officials in Tampa are currently working to put together a roster and developing strategy. Its official name and crest will be announced in a few weeks.